The Unthinkable: Children Who Kill
A Party Beyond Redemption
Jason Sweeney, 16, had a new girlfriend—his first. On May 30, 2003, he was on his way to see her. They had been together just two weeks and he planned to bring her over to meet his family the next day. He could hardly have been more excited, and his mother was so pleased for him. Justina Morley, 15, was about to graduate from her eighth grade class at Holy Name of Jesus grammar school. She was a pretty, dark-haired girl from a good family and with a lot of friends. This was a positive turn in Jason's life, in line with his ambition to join the Navy the following year and become a Navy SEAL.
He left his home in Philadelphia's blue-collar neighborhood known as Fishtown, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, at about 4 that afternoon. He told his parents he was going on a date. He had money from his recently cashed paycheck and he was eager to spend it on her. Yet he might have been surprised when Justina invited him to go with her into an isolated, weedy industrial area off Beach Street, known as "the Trails." It was a stone's throw from the Delaware River, near I-95.
Much of what follows was taken from confessions afterward, and the case has not yet gone to trial.
As they walked along the gravel path, Morley's cell phone rang. She allegedly answered with an angry retort: "What did you do, bitch out?"
Jason did not know what that was about, but he didn't say anything. He didn't realize it was about him. Something had gone wrong that was quickly righted.
Justina reportedly suggested they have sex and she began taking off her clothes, urging Jason to do the same. A teenage boy enamored of his first girlfriend, he wasn't about to turn her down. He removed his shoes and began to undo his pants. Once he was in a vulnerable position, he looked up to see his best friend and two other boys he knew running at him. They were kids his mother had asked him to stay away from. He didn't know what they had in mind, but he struggled to pull up his pants and run.
Coming at him was Edward "Eddie" Batzig, also 16 and an honor student, who had been friends with Jason since the fourth grade. They had recently been to Florida together and had vacationed with each other's families. Following him were two brothers, Dominic Coia, 17, and Nicolas Coia, 16, known around the neighborhood as petty thieves and mischief-makers. They often wore black.
As Morley looked on, doing nothing to intervene or get help, Eddie Batzig lifted a hatchet and struck the first blow to Jason's head. He struck as hard as he could, four or five times. Dominic Coia hit Jason in alternating blows with a hammer, slamming so hard that the hammer stuck in Jason's skull, and the younger Coia beat him with a brick he'd picked up in the trash-strewn area.
"Blood was spurting," Dominic later recalled. "We just kept hitting and hitting him." Supposedly, Dominic did not believe they were really going to do it, that it was just a game, but once Eddie struck the first blow, they all stepped in.
Even as Jason was fending off blows and begging for his life, he realized this had been a trap. His "girlfriend" had played him for a fool. His last words, according to confessions, were, "I'm bleeding," and then to Morley he said, "You set me up."
It's possible that Justina had known that Jason would have money from his construction job with his father, because the boys later said they had plotted the attack for more than a week, discussing how they would kill him and spend his money. For several hours that day as they waited, they listened to the Beatles' song "Helter Skelter" over and over, more than 40 times through. This was the song that had inspired Charles Manson to send his "family" on a murderous rampage in 1969 against actress Sharon Tate and her friends on one night, and against the LaBianca couple on another. They wrote "Helter Skelter" in blood on a wall.
The boys had then donned latex gloves and two of them grabbed weapons. All three headed out to the Trails.
They kept beating Jason, ignoring his screams, until he choked on his own blood. One of them finished the job, using a large rock to crush Jason's skull. Their clothes were covered in blood, but their minds were elsewhere. Once they knew he was dead, they rifled his pockets for the money and got $500—his cashed paycheck. Excited, they joined together in a group hug. "It was like we were happy with what we did," Dominic said later.
They left Jason where he lay and went to the home of a friend.
When Eddie did not come home on Saturday, his mother started making calls. Justina agreed to help her search for him, although she clearly knew where he was. This woman would later say that Eddie had told her that Justina was not Jason's girlfriend but was involved with all the boys.
At about 2 on Saturday afternoon, a group of children on mountain bikes going through the Trails came across Jason's body and called the police. There was no ID on him and he was reported as one of five bodies found over the weekend in Philadelphia. According to Deputy Medical Examiner Ian Hood, speaking to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the autopsy indicated that the victim's head had been crushed with multiple powerful blows. Every bone in his face was broken, except for the left cheekbone, and he was unrecognizable. Pieces of bone were lodged in his brain. His head was so chopped up, Hood said, his skull could be considered split in two.
The police learned that Jason's father had reported him missing, having last seen him on Friday afternoon. They brought him to the morgue. In astonishment, he identified the body on Monday morning as his son. Jason had never been involved in drugs or gangs like other boys in that blue-collar town, Paul Sweeney said. How could this happen?
Since Jason had been on his way to Justina's, the police checked there and also learned from witnesses that the Coia brothers and Eddie Batzig knew him and had been with him recently. When they requested that the boys come to the police station as possible witnesses, two of them soon became suspects and they quickly confessed to the murder. Under further questioning, Batzig and one of the Coias talked about the crime but apparently expressed no remorse. According to detectives' statements to reporters, Eddie and Dominic gave statements and seemed only interested in when they could return home. As the story came out, Justina was brought into custody, but she made no statements. Neither did Nicholas. All of them acquired legal counsel.
According to a police transcript made available to the paper, Dominic admitted under questioning that Justina Morley had been the bait to get Sweeney to the area. "We took Sweeney's wallet," he said, "and we split up the money and partied beyond redemption."
He wasn't far wrong. He and the other boys, charged in Common Pleas Court as adults with first-degree murder, conspiracy and related charges, could now face the death penalty. Their friend 18-year-old Joshua Staab testified that he had overheard their plans and had helped to wash out their bloody clothing afterward (as did an unnamed 16-year-old girl). He knew they were planning to kill Jason. They went out that evening, he said, and returned after failing to meet up with Justina as planned. They called her and then went out again. Twenty minutes later they were back, but now in blood-covered clothes, telling Staab that they had killed Jason and could not believe that they had done it.
"They were shaking," Staab added in court, in a way that implied they were exhilarated. They divided the money at the kitchen table. Each now had $125, and Morley appeared to him to be happy about that. According to Staab, she had called the whole incident "a rush." Staab noticed no signs in any of them of anxiety or remorse. "They seemed pretty fine." The ill-gotten gains were spent buying marijuana, heroin, cocaine and Xanax. Even deodorant.
In court, as recorded in local newspapers, although Morley shed a few tears, she also snickered with her co-defendants during one sidebar. Eddie kept his eyes on the floor while Dominic appeared agitated.
While there was some speculation that they had been high at the time, Dominic Coia denied it. "I was as sober as I am now," the report quotes him as saying, and then he added, "It is sick, isn't it?"
"Shocking beyond words," Assistant DA Jude Conroy later remarked.
At their hearing, Judge Seamus McCaffery noted the barbaric nature of the violence, questioning any civilization that produces such callous depravity.
Morley's case was pending, due to a possible mitigating circumstance of depression. At age 15, she is too young for the death penalty. Her lawyer indicated that during their conversations she had never referred to Jason as her boyfriend and it is his contention that there is no evidence that she knew anything about this attack or was involved. He wanted her case separated from that of the boys.
Verdicts in the cases have been reached. The boys were all found guilty, and Morley was allowed to plead down to third degree murder, due to a deal reached between her lawyer and the prosecution.
Jason's grieving mother believed the killing could only have been about getting a thrill, because her son was generous. If they had asked, she commented, he would have given them the money. He always gave things away. Considering the group hug afterward and their reported state of mind after the alleged attack, she may be correct. The police indicated that if all they wanted was the money, they could have knocked him out and taken it.
Studies show that while youth violence appears to have declined, those statistics center only on actual arrests, not on violent acts that might have ended a life but did not. "More than 400,000 youths aged ten to nineteen were injured as a result of violence in 2000," says one report, "and 15 to 30 % of adolescent girls admit to committing a serious violent act." More and more kids are getting involved in risky behavior, searching for thrills and feeling less ashamed of harm done to others.
While there is always talk about drugs as the cause, or violence in the media, negligent parents, and a society lax in its own values, it's also clear that these kids made choices in full awareness that they would be committing not just murder but an egregious betrayal of a friend. This gives the crime an added layer of brutality.
This account was developed from numerous articles in newspapers local to the Philadelphia area, notably The Philadelphia Inquirer.